Sunday, 15 March 2015

RPG Update; Death Takes A Holiday and Time & Temp

"We're More Popular Than Cheeses."
 My nerdy chums and I may have been a bit sparkly-eyed this week, with the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett.  A distinctly British nerd icon with his books that mixed slapstick comedy, wordplay and oddly serious themes, he was in particular a big deal for Sister Superior who was a huge fan growing up.  Not since Roald Dahl's passing has she actually been emotional over the death of a famous person.

We waited for a couple of hours in Borders bookshop Glasgow to get him to sign a book once; she had met before, however.

However, appropriately enough we had an RPG scheduled for the Thursday which rather fit a Pratchett-like theme which we gave a shot.  While we'd played overtly Discworld games before - taking on the role of City Watch in CSI: Ankh-Morpork - this was something more broadly connected.  This was Death Takes A Holiday.

It has two editions, each with radically different rules.  We were using the randomless version.

Death Takes A Holiday casts the characters as members of the same family who all died in an accident - and, rather than pass on beyond the Veil of Souls, find that Death is willing to do them a deal if they'll act as substitute Grim Reapers while he takes his first vacation in a few millennia.  In his absence they must shepherd souls who have passed to the next world, preventing any souls from lingering and becoming Undead.

They must police Perdido Island, an old-fashioned vacation destination which sees an average of a death per day.  When a death is due to happen, a mysterious postcard arrives from The End Of Things with a vague clue to get them on their way but without spelling their job out to them.  In our game, for example, the postcard said: "Many comedians talk of dying on stage but very few actually do it."  This suggests a comedian dying mid-way through a performance but not who, where, when or why.

The character sheet; solved as a questionnaire, ala Dread, but with more rules.
At the start each player was given an identical character sheet with seven statements and a list of seven possible answers.  Each answer was used once and modified the statement on their sheet: Yes And, Yes But, No And, No But, But Only If, Try It A Different Way and That's A Funny Story Actually.  By using these to frame their answers they decided which statements were totally, mostly, partially or not entirely true - ending up with quite different characters.

So, for example, my character was awkward teenager Leopold Boxmuller took the statement Has been granted the ability to see spirits and ghosts and answers Yes, and I am able to touch them.  Meanwhile, Sister Superior was the middle-aged cat-lady Felicity Boxmuller and she answered that same statement with But only if they're the spirits of animals.

Similar questionnaires are filled in for Perdido Island, the Boxmuller family business, The Bone Orchard (the home of death) and any supernatural adversaries like undead or warlocks you decided to include in the game.  By our answers, for example, Perdido Island was changed from having modern tech to being a bit backwards - no internet or mobile phone connection seems to work - and the Boxmuller family business was made a shop specializing in saucy seaside postcards.

This is a bit of a British thing, but when you say "past it holiday resort" to us we think of a very specific style.
The premise was enjoyable but the actual game mechanics left us a bit cold.  Those same seven statement answers - Yes And etc - are put on cards in the middle of the table.  With no GM, the group narrates their character's actions and the NPCs they or others interact with purely by saying what they think will happen.  Anyone can interrupt by flipping over one of the cards to use it - if I saw Leopold Boxmuller climbs a fence to break into a house, anyone can answer Yes, But He Tears His Clothes or No, And It Turns Out To Be An Electric Fence.  The cards periodically reset, so you lose then regain options.

Now we aren't opposed to player narrative games - Primetime Adventures is our go-to game for Star Trek and often mentioned as a "system we'd use for X gameworld" - but Primetime Adventures, Fiasco and Microscope still have more structure to their group/GM-less narration - people get turns to set or resolve scenes, players are encouraged to come up with their own ideas. Without that guideline, some players can sorta float without purpose and at points in Death Takes A Holiday it did feel we lacked any focus.

The PDF, available for free, is filled with weird Victorian photographs to set the somewhat quirky mood.
The GMless thing didn't really work either - in reality I ended up being quasi-GM, playing almost every NPC the group encountered.  I suspect if we'd had another player with more GMing experience like Aaron present we'd have had more luck with spreading the load but the group kinda locked down the moment they had to do much beyond their single guy or girl - perhaps a certain amount of fear or "doing it wrong"?

Anyway, the actual idea of the game isn't bad and it's something I might revisit.  The rules, less so - like Big Hearts In Big Country, we had fun in the setting but not really because the rules were helping. Primetime seems a likely possibility.

On a sideways note, I mentioned a western RPG there, which leads us into our other one-off...

Not a hugely serious game

Time & Temp is a game I've ran twice before and each time has been fun, albeit with a bit of a learning curve for the rules.   Character generation and GMing are easy - actually playing is.... not "hard", but the mechanics are not exactly normal.

Playing temporary employees of a time policing agency - temporary employees being the only people trusted to go back in time as they are unlikely to get caught in paradoxes due to being so unimportant to history - the game sees players sent to a time zone to try and prevent an achronous present there.  This time around it was three prison escapees from the 23rd century who had managed to break out of jail and ended up in the Wild West.  Our group of modern day wasters - an ex-RAF officer, a Celtic Studies graduate and an Italian American with mob connections - were thrown back in time to apprehend the thugs, preferably without causing the universe to end.

We did comedy and pastiche, but we didn't go full on Knights of Cydonia

"Not causing the universe to end" is kinda the root of the game.  Players can roll one or multiple dice when they take an action, and if they wish to succeed hassle-free they must choose the lowest number to enter into The Matrix. (More on this shortly.)  If they want to choose a higher number they have to accept a problem - they fail their task, they suffer a setback, they cause a temporal paradox.  Choosing not the second lowest but even higher dice requires picking multiple problems - so if you roll 1, 2, 4 and 8 but really want to put that 8 on The Matrix then you need to accept lots of problems.

The easier a task is, the bigger a dice you roll.  The more likely you are to mess up time by doing something, the smaller the dice you roll Just trying to remember who was president in 1872 should be D12s; running away from an angry sheriff should be D8s; shooting said sheriff could easilly be D6s or even D4s.  Therefore you get more choice of numbers for the Matrix doing simpler than harder things.

But what is the Matrix, you say?

"Nobody can be told what The Matrix is; they have to see it for themselves."
This probably looks quite intimidating, and my players would agree.  Even though people playing this game have played in all three sessions I've ran they always start each session by staring at this in panic, spending the first half hour insisting I'm an idiot and the rules make no sense, then suddenly having an epiphany and watching it all fall into place. 

In short, the first dice roll (the one to time travel to the right place, safely and subtly) spanks into the top right of the grid.  Every time you make a dice roll it must go in the grid and it must touch an existing number horizontally or vertically - thus, the numbers slowly expand out from the top right corner.  

If the same number is placed adjacent to itself, this is bad and causes an anomaly - starting benignly with deja-vu then escalating up to weirder things like pockets of slow time, portals between eras and other such weirdness.  Meanwhile, if you create patterns of non-matching numbers -  a three by three, sudoku-style grid of differing numbers for example - this is good and lets you do weird things like meet future versions of yourself or find out it was you that stole your dad's keys.
TV Tropes to the rescue.
The end result is that the rules, while not hard or complex exactly, are important.  Even putting the same number in the grid several times causes problems, as does getting further into the session - the more times a number has been used, the more likely it is to cause paradoxes.  You don't just turn up, throw some dice and get told how you do - you always choose if you succeed or fail, but sometimes choosing to fail now is to your betterment later on and sometimes you have to accept a failure to prevent the universe exploding from paradox.

Overall it's a fun game once you get into it, but crossing the first bridge of The Matrix is going to be hard for some people.  Would it work for more campaign play?  Hmm, that's something I've not tried, though there'd be some interesting mechanical tricks if players started going back to times they've already visited.  For now, though, it's one of the one-offs I have in my "can run at short notice" pile, since very little prep work is required.

That helped scratch a time travel itch, since I've been reading up on another time travel game right now but don't feel comfortable running it.  Maybe another day!  If you think The Matrix makes a complicated time travel game.... oh baby, you ain't seen nothing yet.

An obscure RPG which is very out of print and very weird.  I've had an interesting RPG,net thread about it the past couple of weeks.

1 comment:

  1. I did do one NPC for Death Takes a Holiday (the customer in the shop), but that was principally because otherwise it would have been you talking to yourself. And as you said, I liked the setting for DTAH but not the ruleset. I think using something like PrimeTime for it might work better.

    And I think this time round, we remembered about the Matrix in T&T fairly quickly. I think it does take a bit to get your head around, but it only took us 3 sessions (widely spaced) to figure out.